“Who hasn’t had the urge to put their life on hold for a moment?”
Based on an E. L. Doctorow short story, Wakefield is not just an engaging story, but a man’s spiritual journey of growth and discovery. It serves as a critique of modern life and our assumptions about happiness, success, and love.
Successful Manhattan lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is plugging through life. When a power failure delays his train on the way home to the suburbs, he arrives home very late. Seeing a raccoon sneak into his garage, he goes in to chase it out. In the garage’s attic, he discovers he can secretly watch his family. Knowing his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) is still angry from a fight the night before, he decides to hide out. The next morning, she begins to worry, but he just watches, playing out in his mind the phone calls she is making. The longer he stays up there, the more awkward it will be to go in. So he sets aside all his life to watch. He is soon living the life of a street person: eating out of trash cans, his hair and beard growing unchecked, no longer working. Yet he keeps watching, seeing the changes in his family’s life with him not there.
You may read that and think Howard is a jerk. That puts it mildly. He is cynical and self-centered. Even as we watch we are repelled by his actions and how little he cares about what his family is going through. As he thinks back to his courtship of Diana, we see it was more about competition and conquest than about love. Yet, we can’t help but worry about Howard as months pass and he is isolated from the world. How could he go so quickly from a successful man with all the trimmings of a good life to what we would essential think of as a bum? Which is the real Howard?
One of the themes of the film deals with the idea of freedom and enslavement. At one point Howard claims, “Unshackled I’ll become the Howard Wakefield I was meant to be.” No doubt he has felt encumbered by all the demands of work and family. It may be that he and Diana are not even aware of the ennui that has settled into their marriage. But when Howard begins to step back, he thinks he is discovering a freedom. Yet in time, the freedom he thought he found actually was a different kind of bondage.
But as the film progresses, Howard begins to move past his egoism and discover that life is not just about what he feels and thinks. He began thinking his life was empty. But as he watches the world from his hiding place, he discovers that there was much of value in his life. It is now, in his supposed freedom, that he has become truly empty. This is an existential crisis. Howard has discovered that the trappings of modern life didn’t make him happy. But at the same time, cutting himself off from the world also does not fulfill him. The emptiness that can so easily affect all of us is really a matter of spiritual longing. We lose touch with the connections of life that feed our spirit. Howard had in a sense already lost touch with his family. It was only by discovering the distance between his life and the world around him that he could begin the changes that might lead to a full life that could be possible.
Photos courtesy of IFC Films